It starts with a welcomed glance across the room, an immediate attraction between two strangers.
From that comes a greeting, followed by a name, a drink and, with all luck, a number. A social exchange presumed extinct in the rejection-proof era of dating apps when it does happen it can feel, albeit sappily, cosmic.
Meeting a significant other in this fashion may only come as hearsay nowadays, connoting a mythological aura. But it is an all too common occurrence at McGillin’s Olde Ale House, the oldest continuously operating tavern in Philadelphia.
Nearly 160 years after its first brew was poured, McGillin’s has become a featured staple of social life in the city and the meeting grounds for young couples. Christopher Mullins, Jr., co-owner of the bar with his mother Mary Ellen and father Christopher Sr., attributes the communal seating and young nightlife demographic as catalysts for people meeting, something which he now can track with the rise in social media.
“It’s become well known in the last couple of years [that McGillin’s has been the site for many new relationships], but it’s been going on for generations,” said Mullins, Jr., who has worked at the bar for 13 years but grew up visiting his grandparents at McGillin’s. “I think social media actually helped to highlight that history, which we probably would not have realized even though forever people have met here.”
Pictures cover the walls of those who have met at the classic tavern with new frames being added daily by either staff or customers, excited to put their mark on McGillin’s long history. In the past few years, Mullins, Jr. has created a sign-in book for couples who have met at the tavern. Already the book has accrued more than 70 names and stories.
Opened by William McGillin in 1860, the same year that Abraham Lincoln was elected president, the tavern stayed in the McGillin family for three generations. In 1958, the establishment was sold to the Mullins, who have also kept it in the family for the past three generations.
Located at 1310 Drury St., Mullins, Jr. said the tavern has weathered historical moments, including the Civil War and Prohibition, but also the peaks and valleys of the restaurant and bar scene in Philadelphia. Throughout its existence, McGillin’s has garnered popularity but has purposely not been “trendy.”
“We know we’re not the fanciest bar. We don’t have the gastropub venues,” said Mullins, Jr., who emphasized the cost conscious menu. “We may not have the most exotic beers that come from the far corners of the world, but we’re authentic, we’re local. There’s a place for us in Philadelphia, and Philadelphians remember that.”
Philadelphia Weekly sat down with three local couples who will always remember the impact McGillin’s has had on their personal lives.
Reconnections: Ryann Gallagher and Kevin Kulak
It had been 20 years since Ryann Gallagher, 28, and Kevin Kulak, 26, had seen each other. As kids, Ryann’s cousin and Kevin’s sister would hang out and let them tag along until the two friends lost touch. That’s why when Ryann was introduced to Kevin in the upstairs room of McGillin’s in 2015, she “barely recognized him.”
It would take two more chance encounters, also on the second level of the tavern, for Kevin to muster up the courage to bring a Coors Light over to Ryann at her high-top table.
“The rest was history,” said Ryann, a finance and accounting recruiter.
“That was it,” added Kevin, who is in finance and sales.
“We didn’t stop talking the rest of the night,” Ryann reminisced.
The relationship that formed was an unexpected surprise for both parties, neither ready for anything serious at the time of their reconnection. Kevin had just gotten out of a relationship and Ryann was completing her master’s and enjoying her early 20s, the latter of which she advises her sisters to do when they ask for dating advice. While the two were not actively looking for a relationship, as Kevin explained, “that always seems to be the time when you end up finding someone.”
“This bar is a big part of Philly history and we are rooted in this area, so to be able to say we met in a bar that has so much meaning to other people and to the city is pretty cool.”
– Ryann Gallagher, who met boyfriend Kevin Kulak at McGillin’s
The pair, who both hail from Plymouth Meeting, are engaged with plans to get married in November 2020.
Their engagement photos? Taken at McGillin’s.
“I think it’s the best bar in the city. I mean that’s like our personal opinion,” said Kevin, smiling at his fiancée. “But anytime I think about it, I obviously think about Ryann and how we met.”
The fact that the two reconnected in a place where many others have met their significant others only adds another special element to their story.
“We were one of 74 couples that [signed their names in the book saying that they] have met here, and that’s probably nowhere close to the [number] of people [who] have been here and actually gotten married,” Kevin continued. “So anytime I think about when we met, we met in a place where a lot of people seem to meet their soulmate.”
What’s more is that their love story is another memory in the larger tableau of McGillin’s relationship to Philadelphia.
“This bar is a big part of Philly history and we are rooted in this area, so to be able to say we met in a bar that has so much meaning to other people and to the city is pretty cool,” Ryann explained.
The last weekend of every February, the two return to McGillin’s to crack open a Coors Light and toast the bar that brought them back together.
New beginnings: Nace and Regina Mullen
Nace II and Regina Mullen from Society Hill met at McGillin’s on Jan. 1, 2011 during its celebration of the Mummers Day Parade, both having had bad dates the night before on New Year’s Eve.
An annual tradition for Regina, she came early with friends, anticipating the tavern to be packed. Invited by a mutual friend, Nace came later and was stuck outside in the line.
Once Nace got inside, he was immediately drawn to Regina. The two struck up a conversation that lasted hours. Heading back to Nace’s house, they let out his dogs, put on some Frank Sinatra, danced, talked, and then came back to McGillin’s for round two.
“I thought he was attractive, and I thought he must be somewhat normal if he’s friends with my friend,” said Regina. “So he had that on his side.”
The next year in 2012, the two were married. Admirers of the historic roots of McGillin’s, Regina and Nace continued in the old-timey footsteps. The two wed on the cobbled stone streets between 2nd and 3rd and Delancey where it meets Spruce St. A year after their wedding, they had a son, Nace III. Today, just five years old, he’s already following in his parents’ McGillin’s-loving ways, becoming a regular for lunch and dinner.
Married for the past six years, the couple reflected on the “comfortable atmosphere” at McGillin’s as a reason why so many love connections have been made there, including their own.
“I think you can be yourself here. You don’t have to be on guard,” said Nace, 62, a retired software salesperson.
“It’s not pretentious. It’s just a nice crowd, it’s a nice group of people,” added Regina, 44, a retired school psychologist.
A long-time bachelor no more, Nace said he had “been looking for the right one.”
“Oh, you found her,” Regina laughed, also acknowledging the 18 year age gap as nothing but a number.
Each New Year’s Day, you can find Nace and Regina inside McGillin’s, celebrating nostalgia and a clean state at the bar where they first met and fell in love.
A Letter Away: Marie and Bill Miller
Marie, 77, and Bill Miller, 80, from Clifford Heights have been married for 53 years. Bill first laid eyes on Marie back in 1962 at McGillin’s during a night out from the Navy Yard where he was stationed.
Marie was at the front bar with her friends, just having come off a late shift of nursing. Bill was quick to see Marie, but faced one hiccup — he was on a first date with someone else. Not a man to live with regret, Bill left his table to get more drinks and spoke with the woman at the bar stool, even getting Marie’s number as a result.
“My date came up and I said, ‘would you like to meet Marie?,’ and she said, ‘No, I don’t think so,’” Bill recounts, known for his playful nature.
Bill ended up calling Marie, and the two wound up back at an extremely crowded McGillin’s the next week. The place was so packed that Bill went by Marie, only catching “more or less her silhouette, because the light of the jukebox was behind her.”
Unable to recognize her as the woman he had just called, he was once again infatuated and initiated a conversation, asking her where she was from. Marie was quick to note their previous encounter to which Bill joked back, not letting another awkward encounter stop him.
“I thought he was the [most handsome] man in the world,” said Marie. “I still do.”
“In the dark,” Bill chimed in.
After that, the two “went out like crazy,” quickly recognizing their “day and night” personalities with Marie being more serious and Bill as more of a jokester. The romance forcibly ended when Bill left for San Diego and subsequently deployed to Japan for two years in the Navy.
A time before email and text, Bill began to write Marie letters. One of those letters included a marriage proposal. Marie was in Kansas City, experiencing a brief change of careers as a stewardess when she received the letter of his return to the States and of his proposal. Guided by her heart, she soon returned to Philadelphia.
“My father was like, ‘you sure he’s going to show up because he’s in California and you’re back here.’ As I get older, I understand why he felt that way,” said Marie. “But if the chemistry is there, I think you just know, you just absolutely know.”
Bill and Marie have two children, both who were Navy fighter pilots, and four grandchildren. They still have not brought their sons, who are located in California and Hong Kong, to McGillin’s but are still hoping to share with them the place where their story began.
“We wouldn’t be here, our family wouldn’t be here if this bar wasn’t here,” Marie asserted. “It was meant to be.”